Recent visits and discussions with various technologists, including robotics engineers and computer scientists, have made us think about the question of how the development of touch-related digital technologies might bring about new awareness of ‘touch’: the conscious sensation of touching, and the specificity of those particular sensations. Some robotics engineers develop robots to work in situations that reduce the risk of harm or danger to humans, for example in bomb disposal or high radiation contexts (like the recent ‘little sunfish’ that can enter the Fukushima reactor). Where these robots have to undertake delicate tasks of manipulation or construction, there is a need to train them to ‘touch’ or engage with the machinery in an appropriate way – both manipulatively and with sensitivity to pressure, especially where the ‘touch’ involves delicate mechanisms.
One way of training these robots is through getting them to mirror human action of similar manipulations. In such training situations, we assume the human trainer has to consciously think and be aware of the specific touch quality being conveyed to the robot, as well as the parts of the hand (e.g. fingertips or palm) or arm that are critical to ensuring effective operation. This process, then, makes salient properties of touch that we are typically unconscious of, and is interesting to the In-Touch project in developing our understanding of touch in a digital context. More than this, though, the ‘awareness’ process must be instrumental in supporting the ongoing development of the ‘touch’ capabilities of the robots, specifically in terms of knowing what aspects of the mechanical operations are most essential, and which sensations, like pressure, including the degree of these different sensations – are most critical. While some engineers still work with human anatomy as a template for robotic form and action, many robot designs actively move away from mimicry, for instance by managing without the superfluous ‘little finger’ which usually serves a stabilising function. This raises questions of optimising robotic touch in digital contexts as similar or different from human touch and its associated, often taken-for-granted sensations, skills and knowledges.
Similarly, the Kissenger we are in the process of trying out brings to consciousness awareness of the ‘touch’ sensation on your lips or cheek in the context of conveying a ‘kiss’. The Kissenger uses motors under a soft ‘skin’ that create a tactile sensation when placed on your lips or cheek, and while this does not feel exactly the same as a kiss, it can enable us to think about what the qualities of a kiss are that are needed to convey a message. For In-Touch this will be valuable in developing a language of touch, and in informing about the role of digital touch in making salient certain sensations, what these sensations are, and the role they play in communication. It also raises the question of the role of intentionality in both sending and receiving such communication – if you know the intention is for your loved one or friend to send you a reassuring kiss, then the sensation you feel from the Kissenger can be mapped to your own experience of being kissed.
This brings to the fore the centrality of touch awareness and the meanings of touch with regard to human-to-human and human-to-machine communication. Within medical contexts, we have moreover encountered research and development around the notion of communication between body and environment through digitally mediated interfaces. Here, prosthetic devices might bridge sensory gaps for patients who have lost some touch awareness and need to be made aware of their surroundings, for instance regarding unwanted pressure on foot ulcers. In this context, it is the very notion of touch awareness itself that comes into focus for the design of digital touch communication.